Monday, August 29, 2011

A Rant Against a Rant About the Em Dash

A few months ago I read an article on Slate written byNoreen Malone, and it’s bothered me since though I couldn’t put my finger on why. I think I’ve got it. In her article, Malone demonstrates what extreme use of the em dash looks like, so much that the reader is left dazed and confused. A few sentences would’ve sufficed in my mind, but the article indeed makes its point.

Apart from that, though, there’s not much weight in Malone’s piece. She doesn’t exhibit how to properly use the em dash and strives to eliminate it completely. The em dash, she says, does not allow for clear, concise writing. I disagree.

Now, for those of you unclear as to what exactly an em dash is, it’s a punctuation mark the width of the capital m in the same font, most commonly used to set phrases apart for special attention. (A comma, colon, or parentheses could also be used to set off the text, but be sure to match the punctuation’s strength with your words’ emphasis.)Look at this example of Arthur Miller’s The Bare Manuscript:

She tried not to think that all his verses about her—the sonnets, the villanelles, the haiku—were merely ploys to prepare her for this ridiculous rubber balloon.

Malone writes that the em dash “disrupts the flow of the sentence.” Sure, but isn’t that the point? Commas are not as emphatic as dashes because they keep the sentence flowing. Parentheses are even weaker. If Miller had used commas, the impression that Lena was trying—and failing— to not think about all the verses would’ve been lost. The sudden break and the list show that she was thinking about them anyway. You can almost see her breaking off, remembering them all.

It’s true that some writers abuse the em dash. But despite the coherent advice from those she quotes, Malone suggests we stop using the em dash entirely. Huh. Maybe that’d be good for her, since she admits to not knowing how to use the em dash accurately. For the rest of us, however, information on how and when to use the em dash would’ve been much more useful. So here you go:

Em dashes are used to express a sudden break in thought: The former owner—it was a used car—was a mechanic. OR Brooke left later that day—much later than expected—for Los Angeles.

A list of terms or a definition can be set off by dashes: Three people—Greg, Katie, and Mick—attended the meeting.
Any punctuation that normally would have been used in the sentence if the dashes and the material they enclose were not there should appear: Peter looked at his watch—the one that she gave him—; he was going to be early. (Peter looked at his watch; he was going to be early.)

An interrupted quotation is followed by an em dash. A comma should be used after a dash if needed to separate the quoted material from the rest of the sentence: "I never thought that—," she began to say.

If a parenthetical remark set off by dashes requires an exclamation point or question mark, the exclamation point or question mark can precede the second dash: He was going to tell her—or was he?—that it was all his fault.

To avoid confusion, use only one or two dashes in a sentence.  No more than two.

And the one question I hear repeatedly: How often should you use the em dash?
This to me is Malone’s real issue. Other writers too. Using the em dash to make a sentence longer or to cram one more point in the sentence is NOT effective. The effect—what you’re going for—will be lost.

Other websites that touch on em dashes:

Dummies’ Advice


  1. Nicole. What a perfect way to express what you-- and many authors-- feel about punctuation.
    Obviously the writer wanting to do away with the EM doesn't understand pace, emphasis and cadence in writing. In articles-- perhaps-- they get in the way but in novels they truly help set mood and tone.
    Thank you for making a such a clear statement and showing their importance.

  2. I use the dash. I feel it is a great tool for writing.